The Pros and Cons of Digital Technology in Relation to Illustration

The following essay was originally written in 2011 during my second year studying BA Graphic Design.

This essay will talk about the development of technology from the 15th century until the digital technology of today. It will also explore in detail the effects, both positive and negative, of digital technology in relation to illustration.

Over thousands of years the idea of what illustration is has changed, especially in recent years. Illustration most likely began with someone drawing in the dirt with their finger however now illustrations are being produced for book covers, magazines, posters, websites, and so on. (Zeegen, 2009)

Over the past six or so centuries, technology has developed in ways that have changed the process of producing written and illustrative work. “It is hard to imagine a world in which every image was unique. Prior to the fifteenth century, images were not only-one-of-a-kind but rare.” (Thompson, 2003) [Online] Before the fifteenth century, all illustrated books were produced by hand, making them also very rare. (Mugnai, 2009a) This would have taken time meaning that books and illustrations would have been expensive due to the limited amounts of copies. So at this time copies of books or even the originals would have been found in select places of status such as palaces and churches. (Thompson, 2003)

During the 1400s the printing press was developed by Johannes Guttenberg resulting in the ability to reproduce thousands of identical images. However it was possible to reproduce images before this. In Europe in the 1390s woodcuts were used which then led onto etching and engraving in the middle ages. Some examples of etching are the illustrations by H.K. Browne for Charles Dickens’ novels. (Fig. 1) By the nineteenth century artists were finding ways to add colour into their prints. Books were now becoming easier and quicker to produce and hence costs were reduced rapidly. (Kreis, 2004) This also meant that individual people could then own a copy of a book rather than having to go to other places to look at or be read to from one.

Once methods of printing had been invented there were less hand-drawn books being produced. By the end of the 18th century lithography was invented but this was soon replaced by the end of the 19th century with “photomechanical processes that made possible the reproduction of a wide variety of painting and drawing techniques.” (Columbia University Press, 2007) [Online] The 19th century saw the development of the Golden Age of the Victorian Illustration and also the beginning of the Golden Age of Illustration in America. This period saw a rise in printed book and magazine illustration due to the developments in printing technology. Illustrators from this time were inspired by pre-Raphaelite art, Japanese colour prints and art nouveau style. (Wigan, 2009)

After the two world wars illustration styles changed as illustrators were influenced by the different artistic movements of the time, such as, Pop Art and Photorealism. (Mugnai, 2009c)

In the world today methods of illustration are completely different to those of the past. Bruce Wands suggests, “Computers and the Internet have revolutionized the way people communicate and how they produce media” (Wands, 2000:p40). Styles of illustration have changed to fit the growing developments, such as more visual content is needed on websites and blogs therefore digital approaches to illustrations have increased. (Tallon, 2008)

Picasso once said, “computers are worthless. They can only give you answers.” (Zeegen, 2007b:p41) However as Picasso died in 1973 he was not alive to see the development of digital illustration. In recent years the computer has provided illustrators with an additional means in the process of creating their work.

Digital technology was the next step for illustration and has altered the nature of the discipline. “The digital revolution would take no prisoners – it was clear, adapt or die!” (Computer Arts, 2006) [Online] It was in the early 1980s that the computer began to be used for illustration. At this time computer screens could not display extensive colours and everything was displayed in a low resolution. Therefore Pixel illustration, “is arguably where the whole digital illustration shebang began” (Goldman, 2011) [Online]

Although Goldman argues that digital illustration began in the 80s he also mentions that a different kind of illustration emerged in the 1990s. Adobe Photoshop fully emerged at the beginning of the decade but in 1995 once the software had been developed “digital photo illustration was born.” (Goldman, 2011) [Online]

Soon, although there were illustrators who still preferred to produce their work by hand, less hand drawn illustrations were being used in magazines or on book covers and “images composed of squiggles and geometric shapes, courtesy of Adobe and Apple” (Stermer,2000:p30) began to appear instead.

The invention of programmes such as Photoshop meant that illustrators could edit their work digitally. For example, as Wands pointed out, illustrators could now work purely in black and white then scan their work into a computer and using digital software manipulate elements and apply colour on screen. This meant that artists no longer had to spend hours producing everything by hand and starting again when corrections were required. As well as Photoshop there was Adobe Illustrator, which allowed artists to create illustrations and enlarge them to any size due to the flexibility of such vector software. (Wands, 2000)

Photoshop and other software in theory offer more savings in relation to production. Today many comic book artists draw their work by hand but choose to add colour using digital software. In Goldman’s article he mentions another specialised software, Corel Painter. In similar ways to Photoshop this programme can be used to edit illustrations and photographs or create illustrations from scratch, however in a way that can imitate “the way that watercolour Paints behave when wet, with drips, runs and splashes.” (Goldman, 2011) [Online] This software is time saving as it is possible to produce something comparatively quickly with it, whereas to do the same by hand, for many people, would take a long time as the artist or illustrator may not have skills in a range of media and digital simulation may offer an alternative solution.

Digital technology has given those that are not confident at drawing by hand the opportunity to become illustrators. Computers have opened up new styles of illustration such as Pixel Illustration, as mentioned earlier, and Vector Art. Vector Art is an appropriate type of illustration to be used on websites as files are small in size whilst retaining clarity and are quick to download. Vector illustrations can also be reproduced at any scale without losing clarity and sharpness. Artists usually use photos or hand drawn materials as a template to draw around using digital software. (Goldman, 2011)

However, even though digital technology has become popular in relation to illustration, this does not mean that all illustration has to be entirely digital. Since the development of digital technology there has been a rise in multimedia art. This is where more than one type of media is used within an artwork for example painting, print and photography, and now more recently, digital images. This style of art was fairly popular in the 1990s where technological advancements were giving illustrators and designers new methods to experiment with. (Mèredieu, 2003)

Dave McKean is an example of an illustrator that uses a multimedia approach in his work. He has made many illustrations for book covers, CD covers and graphic novels. He has become widely known for his work with the writer, Neil Gaiman. McKean uses the computer to layer his multimedia compositions, a lot of which are often made by hand. He has a fairly positive opinion about the use of digital technology when producing illustrations. He has suggested that with a computer there is “obviously incredible control” (Miller, 2004) [Online] and it is a good way of layering images no matter what the media; digital or handmade work. McKean is a skilled draughtsman so combines traditional practices with the flexibility offered by digital software. (Fig.2)

His main negative view of digital technology is not one that really relates to illustration work but only that people end up spending most of their time sitting in front of a computer. He also says that many people assume that it is possible to use digital software to edit photographs to get the required affect, however depending on the image this is not always possible.

Despite McKean having positive views on digital technology he believes that illustration is in trouble. “I’m sure this is just the computer’s honeymoon period, but in the meantime, illustrators are having a tough time getting work.” (Miller, 2004) [Online]

Although digital technology has its positive aspects there are other people who have negative views on such developments. Roger Parker believes “recent advances in computer imaging are blurring the line between photos and illustrations”. (Parker, 1998:p93) Caplin and Banks tell us to “forget the ‘photograph’. Nowadays it is just another word for an image. All images are images, however they are produced.” (2003:p6) Françoise Holtz-Bonneau points out that digital images produced on a computer are either overly geometric or they are “excessively realistic in an all too perfect way”. (Mèredieu, 2003:p109) Rick Poynor argues that illustration generated using a computer has become “predictable and trite”. (1999) [Online] Many people have learnt how to use digital methods to produce illustrations, which after a while have become similar and clichéd.

As now it is not essential to be able to draw to be able to produce illustrations, Milton Glaser argues that the invention of computers has made illustrators unnecessary. (Arisman, 2000) If people can produce their own illustrations easily then they will not need to hire illustrators to do this for them. Karl Marx predicted a society where there would not be any professional artists as all people would be artists. “The particular way in which art is expanding and becoming diluted at present” would not please Marx, however he did foresee the possibility of these things occurring such as the blurring of the boundaries of the disciplines. (Mèredieu, 2003:p222)

“Anyone with a computer and a printer now has an artist’s studio, photography studio, film studio, printing press, and laboratory on their desk.” (Herriott, 2009:p6) Although this was said as a positive response to the advancements of technology, it backs up Marx’s view that it is possible that all men will be artists. Everyone will have access to technology that gives them the ability to make their own illustrations, which “makes illustrators unnecessary”. (Arisman, 2000:p55)

Neil Churcher writes about Marion Deuchars, a tutor from the Royal College of Art, in an article saying that she believes that drawing by hand, for example into a sketchbook, shows that the illustrator has design skills. However she thinks that computer aided design has lessened this importance as now it appears the most important thing is digital visualisation. Churcher refers to the graphic designer, Phil Carter, who says that “drawing is a skill that is sadly being lost”. (Churcher, 2002) [Online]

Steven Heller writes in his essay, The End of Illustration, that people are digitally changing aspects of others art works without their permission. (Heller, 2000) Therefore some artists have “willingly offered their pictures, carefully crafted over a career of individual commissions, to be used and misused… altered beyond recognition on attribution.” (Stermer, 2000:p30)

Milton Glaser has written about how he was once approached about a business plan, which would involve compiling a disk of illustrations that people could buy and use as they wished. So someone could buy the disk and then “use any image, for any purpose, modified as desired, combined with any other images, recoloured, reshaped, reconfigured… forever.” Illustrations, therefore, would no longer be unique. (Glaser, 1997:p258)

Glaser fears that the profession of illustration will eventually disappear especially if business plans such as these go ahead and succeed. If people are able to get their hands on such disks then the professional illustrator would no longer be needed or even wanted because, as Glaser points out, it is doubtful that clients will want to pay for illustrations when something similar could be acquired for nothing. For persisting image-makers, such as illustrators, artists and photographers, there is the risk they will not be well known, as they will just be “reduced to the level of anonymous image providers.” (Glaser, 1997:p259) If a disk such as this had ever been produced then illustrations would have become standard images that would get overused and boring. On the other hand, because of the overuse of the same illustrations again and again, people may desire new original visual approaches.

Traditionally a work of art was a unique thing as it was made only the once; there was only one copy. Nevertheless, once technology began to develop it was possible to make copies of these unique art works. The copy, however, would “lack the authenticity and aura of the original work, so be worthless.” (Hillis Miller, 1992:p20)

“That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” (Benjamin, 1936) [Online] Walter Benjamin wrote an essay in which he suggested the idea of aura in relation to artwork and the effect that mechanical reproduction had on this. By reproducing a work of art, for example, it is removing the original from its “domain of tradition”. (Benjamin, 1936) [Online] So even if the reproduction of the artwork is faultless, it is still lacking in something: “its presence in time and space”. (Benjamin, 1936) [Online] The work of art has been removed out of its original context. For example a religious painting would have an aura in the museum or church in which it is displayed, but this aura would be destroyed if it were to be used as a magazine cover as it has been removed from its original domain. Technology has also changed peoples reaction towards hand produced art because original artwork, such as a painting, was only “viewed by one person or by a few” (Benjamin, 1936) [Online] and its aura could only be appreciated by these people. However, once copies could be produced, these art works, now lacking in aura, were viewable by the public who would not value them in the same way as someone who viewed them in their original domain.

This essay was written before the digital technologies of today, as the first computers did not appear until the 1940s (Mèredieu, 2003). However Benjamin’s argument is still relevant today because it can be applied to digital technologies.

The idea of a loss of aura is evident in “photographs of photographs, photocopies of photocopies, and copies of video tapes” (Mitchell, 2004:p5) where each copy has a lower quality than the original. Matt Soar mentioned this idea of an aura: “that illustration beginning with the hand and ending with pens, brushes, or pencils has an affective quality – an aura”. (Soar, 2000:p33) He says that this quality cannot be created by digital processes such as photography and computer software.

Another example of this lack of aura are photographs of things. A photograph of an object is just that, a photograph of an object. By looking at it no one actually sees the original object, what is actually seen is “the original of a reproduction – with all the associated loss of aura.” (Rodman, 2007) [Online] Howard Rodman uses as an example the Eiffel Tower. The actual tower has an aura whereas the postcards, t-shirts and other merchandises do not have this aura.

Lucinda Rogers is an illustrator who produces everything by hand. This consists of mainly reportage drawing which involves her drawing on the spot. Deuchars says that when drawing no one can tell what the final outcome will be like, or whether it will be good, until it is finished. “You have to let it go on its own journey. What you have to do is to start without thinking.” (Churcher, 2002) [Online] With digital technology this is not possible in the same way.

Although many believe digital technology to have caused problems for illustrators and maybe even the end of illustration, Zeegen writes that before digital illustration grew in popularity, illustration was “only moments away from the final nail being hammered into the coffin.” (2010) [Online] Whereas some illustrators believed that all was not well for illustration, Zeegen (2007a) [Online] poses the question “Where did it all go right?” Therefore, digital technology has for some brought new life into the discipline, especially, as Zeegen also points out, through the growth of the Internet where “illustration has become more noticed on an increasingly global scale”. (Zeegen, 2010) [Online]

Overall there are many different opinions about digital technology and its effect on illustration. A Scottish illustrator, Bernie Reid assumes that digital illustration will begin to decline, whereas Michelle Thompson has expressed the view that she believes that both hand-rendered and digital illustration can both exist together especially as image-makers are benefitting from digital techniques within their hand produced illustrations. Peter Arkle, another illustrator, feels that there should be a growing interest in work that shows evidence of being produced by a human hand even if some of the illustration is digital as it really stands out. (Hyland and Bell, 2003)

Although digital technology may be an exciting new method and has made it easier and quicker to produce illustrations, Steven Wilson, who has done illustrations for The Guardian argues that it is “only as exciting as the ideas you have inside your head”. (Computer Arts, 2006) [Online] So illustrators are still needed to come up with the ideas for illustrations. Emily Alston, who uses digital methods, points out that “every illustrator and designer has the very same technology available to them, and if everyone uses the tools in the same way, nothing would ever stand out as different or original.” (Computer Arts, 2006) [Online]

Caplin and Banks believe that digital technology is a positive thing due to the fact that designs and illustrations can be produced faster than by hand but also they point out that “from cave painting on, image making has followed technological advancements and will continue to do so.” (2003:p7) So just as with development of the printing press, lithography and so on, digital technology is simply the next advancement of an ancient and continually evolving process.

On the whole digital technology has had a positive effect on illustration as it has brought new opportunities and methods to the field. With the development of technology, illustrations have become quicker to produce both from the reproduction point of view, with the development of the printing press and later computers; and also in producing the original image, thanks to digital software. There are, on the other hand, negative view points about digital technology as some artists fear that the more traditional methods will be abandoned and that the profession of illustrators will slowly decline because of the ability of everyone being able to produce or copy others work using software available to all. Overall, every time that technology advances, illustration is able to adapt to the new methods of producing, whilst still being able to integrate traditional methods. Therefore, digital technology is the next step in the continually evolving creative activity known as illustration.

6

Fig. 1

Browne, H. (1849) My Musical Breakfast [Online]. Available from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/4/4f/Pickwick_papers27.jpg/220px-Pickwick_papers27.jpg [Accessed: 16th November 2011]

1

Fig. 2

McKean, D. (2008) Big Fat Duck Cookbook Sample 8 [Online]. Available from http://www.mckean-art.co.uk/ [Accessed: 16th November 2011]

References

Arisman, M. (2000) Toward a Holistic Procession: An Interview with Milton Glaser In: Heller, S. and Arisman, M. (eds.) The Education of an Illustrator New York, Allworth Press. P.53-57

Benjamin, W. (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Translated by A. Blenden (2005) [Online]. Available from http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm [Accessed: 1st November 2011]

Caplin, S. and Banks, A. (2003) The Complete Guide to Digital Illustration Lewes, ILEX

Churcher, N. (2002) Drawing Out Ideas [Online]. Available from http://www.lucindarogers.co.uk/design-week.html [Accessed: 13th November 2011]

Columbia University Press. (2007) Illustration [Online]. Available from http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/ent/A0824994.html [Accessed: 30th October 2011]

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Heller, S. (2000) The End of Illustration In: Heller, S. and Arisman, M. (eds.) The Education of an Illustrator New York, Allworth Press. P.23-28

Herriott, L. (ed.) (2009) 500 Digital Illustration Hints, Tips and Techniques Hove, RotoVision

Hillis Miller, J. (1992) Illustration London, Reaktion Books Limited

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de Mèredieu, F.(2003) Digital and Video Art Translated by R. Elliott (2005) Edinburgh, Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd

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Mugnai, F. (2009c) A Brief History of Illustration (Part III) [Online]. Available from http://blogof.francescomugnai.com/2009/11/a-brief-history-of-illustration-part-iii/ [Accessed: 2nd November 2011]

Parker, R. (1998) Looking Good in Print 4th Ed., Arizona, The Coriolis Group Inc

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Rodman, H (2007) Authorship in the Digital Age In: August, J. Authorship in the Digital Age [Online]. Available from http://johnaugust.com/2007/authorship-in-the-digital-age [Accessed: 31st October]

Soar, M. (2000) It Begins with “Ill” and Ends With “Digital”:The Riddle of Illustration’s Declining Fortunes In: Heller, S. and Arisman, M. (eds.) The Education of an Illustrator New York, Allworth Press. P.32-35

Stermer, D. (2000) What the Hell Happened to Illustration? In: Heller, S. and Arisman, M. (eds.) The Education of an Illustrator New York, Allworth Press. P.29-31

Tallon, K. (2008) Digital Fashion Illustration with Photoshop and Illustrator London, Anova Books Company Ltd

Thompson, W. (2003) The Printed Image in the West: History and Techniques [Online]. Available from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/prnt/hd_prnt.htm [Accessed: 30th October 2011]

Wands, B. (2000) The Influence of Computers and the Internet on Illustration In: Heller, S. and Arisman, M. (eds.) The Education of an Illustrator New York, Allworth Press. P.40-47

Wigan, M. (2009) The Visual Dictionary of Illustration London, AVA Publishing SA

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Zeegen, L. (2007b) Secrets of Digital Illustration: a Master Class in Commercial Image Making Hove, RotaVision SA

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Secondary Resources

Ascot, R. and Shanken, E. (2003) Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness Berkley, University of California Press

Grau, O. (2003) Visual Art: From Illusion to Immersion Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Heller, S. (2004) Ode to Illustration [Online]. Available from http://www.aiga.org/ode-to-illustration/ [Accessed: 24th October 2011]

Male, A. (2007) Illustration: A Theoretical and Contextual Perspective Lausanne, AVA Publishing

Mugnai, F. (2009b) A Brief History of Illustration (Part II) [Online]. Available from http://blogof.francescomugnai.com/2009/11/a-brief-history-of-illustration-part-ii/ [Accessed: 2nd November 2011]

Mugnai, F. (2009d) A Brief History of Illustration (Part IV) [Online]. Available from http://blogof.francescomugnai.com/2009/12/a-brief-history-of-illustration-part-iv/ [Accessed: 2nd November 2011]

Mugnai, F. (2009e) A Brief History of Illustration (Final) [Online]. Available from http://blogof.francescomugnai.com/2009/12/a-brief-history-of-illustration-final/ [Accessed: 2nd November 2011]

Triggs, T. (2000) What am I? In: Heller, S. and Arisman, M. (eds.) The Education of an Illustrator New York, Allworth Press. P.49

Wood, F. (2002) China: The Invention of Printing [Online]. Available from http://www.fathom.com/feature/122327/index.html [Accessed: 30th October 2011]

 

 

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